What’s old is new again at Houston, much to the competitive advantage of the ACC.
When North Carolina and Syracuse tip off Saturday, it will mark the 11th Final Four game matching members of the same conference and the third involving ACC teams. Such meetings have become rare in this century: the last time schools from the same conference faced each other in the Final Four was 15 years ago, when the ACC’s Duke and Maryland met.
The NCAA began inviting multiple entrants from the same conference to its postseason tournament starting in 1975; the next season Indiana defeated fellow Big 10 school Michigan to win the national title and conclude the last undefeated season in men’s basketball. The broadening of the field was influenced in part by the 103-100 overtime result in the 1974 ACC tournament that propelled N.C. State to a national championship while a comparably excellent Maryland squad stayed home.
Counting this weekend, teams from the same conference reached more than half of the Final Fours (25 of 42, 59.5 percent) during the era of widened participation. Just last season, Big 10 teams Michigan State and Wisconsin got that far, with each losing to Duke, the ultimate champion.
When a conference had at least two members in the Final Four, one of its representatives came away with the title 11 times in 24 previous tries. An ACC team emerged as the champion twice when the league had a pair of teams in the same Final Four – Duke in 1991 and 2001.
The Big East had three schools in the 1985 Final Four, the most for one conference. That year, eight seed Villanova shocked No. 1 Georgetown to win the championship, shooting 78.6 percent from the floor, a record for the final.
The third and most recent meeting of league members in the title game came in 1988, when a Kansas squad coached by UNC alum Larry Brown and led on the court by current-Wake Forest coach Danny Manning beat Oklahoma, a fellow Big 12 team.
Three years later Kansas was back in the Final Four, coached by Roy Williams. The 1991 semifinals also included the Blue Devils and Tar Heels, the only time both were in the same Final Four. A possible meeting in the title contest was mercifully averted when the Jayhawks defeated the Tar Heels 79-73.
The game ended on a sour note, as Dean Smith was ejected by official Pete Pavia with 35 seconds to go. The Carolina coach’s second technical of the game came when he committed the egregious act of – young children should avoid reading the remainder of this sentence – leaving the coach’s box. Smith said getting kicked out of a game for the third time in his career was “kind of embarrassing, being a Kansas alumnus.”
Duke, which beat UNLV in the other semifinal, went on to top Kansas to win Mike Krzyzewski’s first national championship. Such personal breakthroughs are described by coaches in 2016 NCAA tournament TV commercials in terms akin to another, more intimate first-time experience that’s not discussed in front of young children.
This year is particularly notable in ACC circles for the league’s second straight strong NCAA showing. The super-sized conference matched the bloated Big East’s record achievement, set in 2009, of four teams in the Elite 8. Coupled with three schools in the 2015 Elite 8, the ACC’s two-year representation in the regional finals is the best ever by any league, as were its six Sweet 16 entrants this season.
The meeting of senior Marcus Paige’s Tar Heels and the Orange marks the sixth time a Final Four featured a pair of ACC squads. Twice Duke appeared the same year as Georgia Tech and both lost to the eventual champion – UNLV in 1990 and UConn in 2004. The Blue Devils also were in that 1991 Final Four with North Carolina and the ’01 semis with Maryland.
The Duke-Maryland encounter followed two eventful meetings during the regular season and a riveting 84-82 slugfest in the ACC tournament semifinals. At College Park, Md., in late January, guard Jason Williams fueled a Duke rally from 10 points down with 55 seconds remaining to force overtime and an improbable Blue Devil victory. Barely a month later the Terrapins, led by guard Juan Dixon and big man Lonny Baxter, returned the favor with a decisive win at Durham in which Duke post player Carlos Boozer broke his foot.
Krzyzewski, turning in arguably the best coaching job of his 36-year tenure at Duke, immediately revamped his lineup and reeled off 10 straight wins. Included was the ferocious ACC tournament meeting with the Terps, won on a tip-in by Duke wing Nate James, and a Final Four victory over Gary Williams’ club in which the Devils overcame a 22-point deficit in the first half. That remains the largest Final Four comeback in history.
In a zone
The first all-ACC national semifinal was less dramatic. Played in 1981, the meeting again involved a pair of powerful, evenly matched teams.
Virginia, coming off an NIT title in 1980, was led by 7-foot-4-inch center Ralph Sampson, eventually a three-time national player of the year. The Cavaliers finished first in the ACC at 13-1 and 29-4 overall, and featured All-ACC guard Jeff Lamp and forward Lee Raker.
No. 1 seed UVa took on second-seeded UNC, the ACC tournament winner, behind All-ACC performers Al Wood and James Worthy, and ACC Rookie of the Year Sam Perkins. The teams met home-and-home during the regular season, with the Cavs winning both times after trailing by large margins in the second half.
Jimmy Black, the point guard who helped lead UNC to Smith’s first NCAA title the following season, vaguely recollects the Final Four encounter with Virginia. “I didn’t realize that was in the (NCAA) tournament,” he said the other day. “I thought it was in the ACC tournament. Did we beat them?”
Memory tweaked, Black recalls Wood had a career-best 39-point outing in a 78-65 win against Virginia before the Heels lost to Indiana in the championship game. “You’ve heard people talk about the zone – I was in a zone,” says Wood, whose scoring output remains a semifinal record. “I could pretty much do just about anything I attempted to. There was no thinking, I was just reacting.”
Black adds, “He couldn’t miss, I do remember that.”
Thirty-five years later, the ACC can’t miss getting a team in the championship game for the second year in a row.